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Why Are People Mean? Don't Take It Personally!
Introduction
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist


Read the following to:
  • Understand that people are mean due to some flaw in themselves or distortion in their thinking.
  • Learn that unless you have done something significant, others' meanness is not about you.
  • Understand the difference between unintentional meanness and malicious meanness.
  • Learn the 8 reasons people are mean and how to determine why someone is mean.
Related articles by Dr. Frank:

Next: Reason 1: Lack of Skills/Knowledge or Awareness


Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

To help you determine why a person might be mean:
Reasons for Meanness Inventory

"Why are people so mean?" seems to be a plaintive cry across the internet. Although the issue may be more prevalent online due to the anonymity and accessibility, it is by no means limited to the online community.

Prevent Mean People from Hurting You

Other people's “meanness” impacts us more than it really needs to. Although some of the time meanness is physical, most of the time it is psychological. Meanness most often causes emotional distress, feelings of betrayal, self-doubt, and grief over associated loss.

However, it is possible to protect yourself from the psychological impact of meanness. The more that people can recognize that the meanness they experience from others is either unintentional or is more about the mean person rather than about them, the less they personalize the meanness and the less impact it has on them.

What is Personalizing?

Example: Fran focused on doing a good job at work and because she tended to not spend much time chatting with her co-workers she tended to accomplish a great deal. In fact, it was apparent to everyone that she was able to complete more tasks than her co-workers who spent a great deal of time on their phones, playing on the internet, and talking with one another. One day, one of her co-workers came out of the supervisor's office and verbally attacked Fran: “I just got in trouble and it's all your fault! You make everyone else look bad by being such a brown-noser.” Fran, shocked and hurt, felt bad about herself because someone was angry with her.

Obviously, Fran hadn't done anything wrong. The problem in this situation was the co-worker who was directing her anger at Fran rather than taking responsibility for her own behavior. This misdirected self-protective behavior often occurs when someone has problems with insecurity which frequently leads to jealousy and blame.

However, even though Fran wasn't wrong, she still suffered the consequences of the co-worker's wrath. In fact, this is the purpose of such behavior, by blaming the problem on someone else and causing them to feel bad, the co-worker could feel better.

Personalization is interpreting someone's behavior as being about you or due to you and then feeling bad about yourself. If Fran could recognize that the co-worker's attack was due to the co-worker's personal problems and had nothing to do with her, she could more easily shrug it off and not suffer the consequences of it.

Why Are So Many People Mean?

Circumstances cause meanness. I don't believe most people are mean people. However, under the right circumstances, most people can be mean.

For example, about 50 years ago Milgram conducted his famous “obedience” studies which involved telling the subject that a person in the next room was attached to a machine that delivered electric shock (unknown to the subject, the device was not actually attached). The subject was to ask this person questions and to deliver a shock for wrong answers by flipping a switch on the machine in front of them. The device had a dial on it clearly labeled from mild to dangerous. The researcher told the subject to increase the amount of shock with each wrong answer.

Although most people deny they would turn the dial to dangerous and shock someone when told to do so, Milgram found that nearly 70% of the subjects obeyed the researcher and increased the shock to the dangerous range even when they heard screaming, and finally silence, from the next room. (This type of study is not allowed to be conducted today due to the potential psychological harm to the subject from knowing they could cause harm to another human being.)

Most of you reading this are probably trying to rationalize right now why you would not be among that 70% or you are thinking that something must have been different about those people who were subjects in the study. However, the research and other similar research was conducted with different variations showing the same type of outcome.

This research shows what I stated earlier, that under the right circumstances most people can be mean. The circumstance in this research was the pressure to obey, the pressure to conform, the stress of the situation, and the fear of authority. These are only some of the circumstances that may contribute to people doing “mean” things even when they are not “mean” people.

Mean People Are Noticeable. Often there seems to be so many mean people in the world around us because the behavior of mean people tends to be more noticeable. One reason we notice meanness more than niceness is the way our brains are wired for survival.

According to Rick Hanson, author of Buddha's Brain, we need to be especially observant of the negative things in our environment because those are the things that are most likely to harm us. As a result, those most likely to survive and pass their genes to the next generation were those who were particularly sensitive to danger in the environment.

Another reason mean people are more noticeable is that their behavior is often particularly offensive and hurtful. We are more likely to notice and focus on the person who cut us off in traffic rather than the person who let us merge. The more malicious the behavior, the more likely we are to be distressed and to dwell on what occurred.

However, this supports my position that meanness isn't the norm. For instance, notice what stories make the news. The nature of news is that it is unusual or it has an extreme impact on people's lives. A good example is that the West Nile virus that had significantly fewer episodes and fatalities than the flu got much more media attention. Or a major airplane crash, because it is so rare, will get extensive coverage.

And certainly, anything negative tends to generate more media focus than positive things. Therefore, since meanness gets our attention, I would propose that it is actually rarer than niceness but more noticeable.

Meanness is Rewarded. Unfortunately, another aspect of meanness that makes it more visible is that it is often rewarded. Sometimes the reward can be tangible such as a ruthless businessman being rewarded by making more money. Or, an obnoxious co-worker getting a promotion.

However, it can also be rewarded with attention or escalation of conflict. Sometimes mean people want others to feel bad so they can feel better (i.e. "misery loves company").

It varies with each person what sort of reward is meaningful, although for meanness to continue there must be some sort of reward to the perpetrator. We will examine this further as we look at the different reasons for meanness.

Unintentional vs. Malicious Meanness

Although I tried to organize the types of reasons for being “mean” from unintentional to malicious, I recognize that a case can be made for maliciousness or unintentional meanness in almost any of the categories. However, I believe that, in general, the following categories represent a continuum of meanness from unintentional to malicious.

Unintentional meanness refers to behavior or statements that the recipient may perceive as mean but that weren't intended to be hurtful. Whereas malicious meanness is behavior or statements that have the purpose of hurting the recipient.

The idea of a continuum is that most mean behavior is a mixture of intentionality. Also, much of intentional meanness may not be severe enough in its impact to be considered malicious. Therefore, malicious meanness for the purpose of this article and the categories I have created is considered both intended and extreme.

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